Released: 29 October 1993
Director: Henry Selick
Distributor: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution
Budget: $26 million
Stars: Chris Sarandon/Danny Elfman, Catherine O’Hara, Glenn Shadix, Ken Page, Ed Ivory, and William Hickey
Jack Skellington (Sarandon, with Elfman singing), the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, has grown weary of embodying the same macabre holiday year after year. When he stumbles upon Christmas Town, he is enamoured, reinvigorated, and compelled to replace Santa Claus (Ivory) but, when psychic ragdoll Sally’s (O’Hara) premonitions of disaster comes true and the villainous Oogie Booie (Page) kidnaps Santa for his own diabolical plot, Jack must attempt to salvage not only the spirit of Christmas but of Halloween as well!
As a child, writer and director Tim Burton, known for his macabre and gothic sensibilities, was fascinated by the grandiose nature of holiday celebrations and, inspired by classic Christmas movies, wrote a three-page poem titled “The Nightmare Before Christmas” while working for Disney in the early eighties. Burton initially envisioned the poem being a Christmas special narrated by his childhood idol, Vincent Price, and spent nearly ten years developing storyboards, artwork, and the concept while he worked on some of his most successful feature films.
This success caught the attention of Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg and led to the concept being developed into a feature-length, stop motion musical to be released under Disney’s adult label, Touchstone Pictures, to avoid scaring child audiences. Burton, however, was busy working on Batman Returns (ibid, 1992) at the time (and didn’t wish to be involved in the painstakingly slow and meticulous stop-motion process) but remained heavily influential in the production of the ambitious venture, which took over one hundred people three years and nearly 110,000 frames of animation to accomplish. All of that scrupulous hard work paid off, however, as, when the film released, it received largely positive reviews, eventually (after re-releases and re-uses) earned over $90 million in worldwide gross, and the film has had a lasting impact not just on cinema and pop culture but on the animation industry as well.
The Nightmare Before Christmas begins on the night of another successfully terrifying Halloween; the citizens of Halloween Town are in joyous rapture at having once again scared people out of their wits (“This is Halloween”) and much of the credit for their success, as always, is attributed to the “Pumpkin King”, Jack Skellington, a literal skeleton who is basically the embodiment of the season. Although Halloween Town has a Mayor (Shadix), Jack is the true hero and authority in the town, revered as a celebrity and a genius when it comes to frights and Halloween trickery.
Jack, though, while he appreciates the adulation, has become despondent and depressed at the monotony of the routine of it all; while his creativity and imagination remains at their peak, he’s lost his zest and passion for it all and longs for something, anything, new to inspire him once more (“Jack’s Lament”). When he wanders off from the town and finds the magical nexus between seasons, he is literally sucked into Christmas Town and is immediately besotted; having never experienced such sights, sounds, and wonders, he finds his enthusiasm and curiosity piqued by the appeal of it all (“What’s This?”) and longs to bring the spirit of Christmas to Halloween Town.
The citizens of Halloween Town, however, struggle with the concept of Christmas and Jack, to be fair, struggles to quantify the things he’s seen and meaning of the season (primarily because, at that point, he doesn’t yet realise what Christmas is all about). His attempts are met with confusion and misunderstanding and the only way he can explain it all is to put it in terms they will understand (“Town Meeting Song”). Since no one in Halloween Town shares Jack’s imagination and longing for change, the resulting towns and gifts they create are far from the fun, heart-warming gifts of Christmas Town and are, instead, horrific and terrifying Halloween monsters and creatures that attack and eat people “(Making Christmas”).
I mentioned the Mayor earlier and he really is one of the highlights of the film for me; he has two moods: loud and positive (happy face) and panicked and scared (anxious face). He’s clearly a respected and influential figure, for sure, but, when it comes to actual decision making, even he admits that he’s useless and needs Jack’s guidance and influence to get anything done. While sceptical of Jack’s fondness for Christmas, he goes along with it out of belief in Jack’s abilities and is hopelessly despondent when it appears that Jack has been killed while posing as Santa Claus. Another standout character is Doctor Finklestein (Hickey), a crippled and half-addled mad scientist whose macabre technology brings many of Jack’s designs and ideas to life; while Finklestein appears to be a doting old codger, he is met with resentment by his “daughter”, Sally, a ragdoll girl he created who desires only to escape from the confines of his dilapidated gothic abode.
Jack, who feels he can no longer relate to his peers in Halloween Town, is so wrapped up in his depression and subsequent obsession with Christmas that he fails to truly notice Sally, the one soul in all of Halloween Town who can relate to Jack’s torment. Like everyone in Halloween Town, Sally is besotted with Jack but, rather than merely idolising him, she pines for him with all of her heart and genuinely believes that they would be able to fill the emptiness in both of their lives (“Sally’s Song”). Sally also (somehow…) possesses some limited precognitive abilities; she foresees disaster for Jack’s Christmas venture but he’s too blinded by his fixation on the holiday to even consider failure (after all, he’s never failed at anything before so why should this be any different?)
Of course, Jack’s state of mind and fixation on Christmas is the only thing working against him; despite specifically ordering Lock (Paul Reubens), Shock (O’Hara), and Barrel (Elfman) not to involve “that no-account Oogie Boogie” in his plot to kidnap Santa Claus (“Kidnap the Sandy Claws”), the three, of course, deceive Jack and take Santa to Oogie Boogie the moment Jack has usurped Santa’s position. Oogie, who is a colony of disgusting bugs within a burlap sack, is a malicious bogeyman who lives outside of Halloween Town and makes for a boisterous and diabolical villain who has a bit of a gambling addiction and wishes to cook up Santa and, it is implied, take over Jack’s role as the spirit of Halloween (“Oogie Boogie”).
Of course, the most striking and memorable aspect of The Nightmare Before Christmas is the painstakingly detailed stop-motion animation used to bring Burton’s twisted, gothic imagination to life; every frame is full of little details, many of which no doubt took hours or even days to complete, and needlessly complex creatures such as a melting sludge man, Oogie Boogie’s bugs, and the elaborate sequences where Jack is delivering his horrific gifts as Santa. It’s impressive, to say the least, and make the film a must-watch venture even if only from a purely technological standpoint. Of course, The Nightmare Before Christmas has much more to it than the remarkable and ambitious animation work on show; it also has an extremely catchy and unforgettable number of songs, all of which perfectly convey a variety of emotions and characterisation for each of the film’s characters to help bring Burton’s world to life.
There are several poignant themes at work in The Nightmare Before Christmas as well: alienation, loneliness, the desire for change, and obsession being chief among them. Jack is so disillusioned with Halloween and so tantalised by Christmas that he rejects his former position as the Pumpkin King and fully believes that he will be able to take Santa’s place and claim Christmas as his own. He is astonished when the human world opens fire on him and blasts his sleigh from the sky and, in his defeat, realises that he has ruined the once pure-hearted holiday. However, he still feels his stagnated passion reignited and reclaims his position, vowing to apply himself even harder to making Halloween as memorable and terrifying as possible (“Poor Jack”).
Sally’s frantic attempts to reach Jack fall on deaf ears and nothing she does to sabotage his attempts work; in her desperation to save Jack and get things back to normal, she proactively tries to rescue Santa but ends up being kidnapped as well. Seeing Sally and Santa held at Oogie Boogie’s mercy enrages Jack and, after defeating Oogie Boogie, he finally realises that what he’s been searching for all this time has been standing right in front of him from the start (not just the spirit of Halloween but Sally, with the two of them finally admitting their feelings and appreciation for each other in the film’s heart-warming conclusion (“Finale/Reprise”)).
It’s extremely difficult to put into words how much I enjoy The Nightmare Before Christmas; it’s not only a technical marvel but also a pretty flawless achievement in filmmaking. “Unique” doesn’t seem like a good enough adjective to describe the film, which is both macabre and terrifying while also being heart-warming and genuinely touching. It perfectly encapsulates the feeling the Christmas isn’t something that can simply be appropriated or distilled; it’s a spirit of giving and joyous celebration that requires a certain level of belief and understanding to pull off. Jack’s mistake was thinking that he would be able to usurp Christmas as his own without really understanding it; he just wanted to experience something new for a change and could have just as easily become as equally besotted by Easter or Thanksgiving or any other holiday had he entered a different door.
What makes The Nightmare Before Christmas truly unique is Burton’s ingenious idea of what these holidays are; disparate fantasies embodied in a magical, fantasy world separated form ours only by the veil of imagination, the holiday seasons are depicted as being the work of largely benevolent mythical denizens of these worlds who are fully committed to delivering the spirit of each holiday. With his twisted, gothic imagery and distinctive depiction of such a dream-like fantasy world, Burton’s imagination makes for an entertaining and enthralling film that is more than suitable for Christmas or Halloween viewing and is a timeless classic through and through.
Are you a fan of The Nightmare Before Christmas? If not…seriously, dude, what the hell’s the matter with you? If you are a fan of the film, do you watch it at Christmas or at Halloween and which do you think is more befitting? Are you a fan of stop-motion animation and Burton’s gothic sensibilities? Which character was your favourite and what did you think to Jack’s surprisingly complex characterisation? Have you got a favourite song from the movie (or one of the many remix albums) and, if so, what is it? Would you like to see a sequel produced some day or do you think it’s best left as a stand-alone, cult classic? Whatever your thoughts on The Nightmare Before Christmas, leave a comment down below and join me next Saturday for Christmas Day!